Let me share today another stunning milestone in India’s global leadership. It’s just a number but of course, we know that numbers always tell the story. The number is 517 and it measures something called AQI. The world’s cities and countries compete fiercely when it comes to AQI.
As you might expect, China led the list once, hitting an AQI of 1,600 on January 15, 2018, in the city of Hotan, near the Gobi Desert. China’s capital, Beijing, achieved an AQI of 999 on March 12, 2014.
Today, though, we can be proud that no other country comes close to India, Delhi in particular, with its AQI of 517 as recently as September. We left Lahore, with its August AQI of 273, in the dust. Meanwhile, poor Beijing has fallen precipitously, down to just AQI 25. Tsk tsk. Look further west and you’ll see Norway’s Oslo, which seems to be stuck at—a pathetic AQI of 2.
You probably know that AQI stands for Air Quality Index and measures how polluted the air around you is with carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ground-level ozone, and fine particles measuring 2.5 micrometres or less.
An AQI between zero and 50 signifies fantastic air quality and gets a green. Oslo leads the world.
As the AQI climbs, the colour changes—101-150 gets orange; 131-200 gets red (definitely unhealthy); 201-300 gets a purple (very unhealthy). Air over 301 AQI gets maroon and is “hazardous”. If you’re breathing this, you are going to be very sick sooner or later.
So far, you’ve probably not heard anything you didn’t already know. Delhi has been a polluted nightmare for decades. But the Beijing Summer Olympics of 2008 taught everyone an important lesson—a city’s air can be cleaned up literally overnight.
Driven by national pride, the Chinese government almost magically conjured up blue skies over Beijing by closing factories, restricting traffic, planting trees and upgrading power plants. The world was gobsmacked.
More stunning, Beijing’s kept it that way; its AQI didn’t go back up after the Olympics. In the last 15 years, they have continued keeping their capital’s air pristine; they’re no longer cleaning up only to impress visitors. Today, as I write this, Beijing’s AQI is 25. It’s my turn to be gobsmacked.
Meanwhile, the air of Delhi, capital of a nation that preens itself about its history, religion, culture and vast wisdom, has only been getting filthier and more poisonous since I schooled there 60 years ago. It must be because no one seriously minds.
Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master who died in his forties in 1987, used to say that the environments we create are reflections of our state of mind.
Michael Formica, psychotherapist, says, “If we are distracted, we tend to lose things. If we are disorganised, the piles begin to collect. If we are feeling disconnected, the emails pile up, and the voicemails remain unreturned.”
If your culture teaches you that cleaning up after you is someone else’s job, then with those words you have designed your living environment. Delhi’s AQI today is 500 because its residents have contributed to or tolerated the filthiest air on the planet, considering it someone else’s business to clean up. Seven of the top 10 cities in IQAir’s most polluted cities of 2022 are in India.
What’s the Indian state of mind then, judging by how profoundly poisonous our most populated cities are?
The evidence is that we are a lazy society, addicted to shortcuts and workarounds, brought up to expect someone else to clean up the messes we create around us. The tell-tale signs are everywhere—clothes left on the floor; weekends when you forgo shaving, not caring how you look; cars parked wherever there is an empty space, irrespective of the logjams they will cause; sinks full of dirty dishes that will be washed another day; streets piled with garbage that someone else is supposed to pick up; rules that others must follow but you will break if you can get away with it.
Adapting an old IT slogan, GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out), perhaps I might say SISO. Sloppy Inside, Sloppy Outside.
Our superhuman acceptance and tolerance of filth and messes in our living spaces is kept aside only when guests are due. Then we hurriedly clean things up, hiding anything unsightly. During the G20 recently, entire slums in Delhi were razed or their unwashed populations boarded up and hidden from the world’s view. The skies, however, stayed grey and the air told the world who we really are: a nation of believers in dikhava.
Dr Jordan Peterson, the controversial Canadian psychologist revered by millennials for his outspoken blunt speaking, believes things get better when people start paying attention to the small things they do in daily life.
“We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world,” he writes. “We must each. . . repair what is in disrepair and break down and recreate what is old and outdated. . . It’s asking a lot. It’s asking for everything.”
There may be no other way.
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